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Opinion

Labour are heading for victory – but with a hollowed-out party

30 Mar 2024 7 minute read
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer with Shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves. Photo Stefan Rousseau PA Images

Martin Shipton

What can we expect from an incoming UK Labour government which has, according to the doyen of British psephologists Sir John Curtice, a 99% chance of becoming a real thing this year?

Before answering the question directly, it’s worth pondering on a paradox. A few days ago there was what I considered to be quite a revealing post on X.

Someone called Jack wrote: “All is not well in Cardiff North Labour camp .5yrs ago, 60-70 people would turn up for AGM, last week a mere 18, where no one was willing to stand as chair. The formidable fundraising/leafleting force now dwindled to mostly elected reps!”

So at a time when Labour is streets ahead in the polls, its active membership seems to have hollowed out in a largely prosperous middle class seat in our capital city. But the same seems to be happening in more working class seats too, according to people I know in the party.

There’s some evidence of this in the pictures posted by Labour leafleting teams, which show tiny groups of party activists “on the Labour doorstep”, many of whom are elected politicians. Sometimes the same individuals pop up in different locations.

Welsh Labour Grassroots

Trying to find out what had happened in Cardiff North, I called Steve Davies, a longstanding member of the Constituency Labour Party and a now retired social sciences academic from Cardiff University. I’ve known him for more than 20 years as someone on the left of the party.

He was involved with Welsh Labour Grassroots, a pioneering progressive group which supported the “clear red water” agenda espoused in the early years of devolution by Rhodri Morgan and Mark Drakeford to distinguish what they were hoping to achieve from the New Labour Blairite approach.

He co-produced a very readable satirical blog in those early years and later became one of the organisers of the Cardiff Transformed events where politicians, journalists, academics and others came together to discuss progressive ideas.

Steve told me that he’d finally left Labour last year, with Keir Starmer’s attitude towards Israel’s invasion of Gaza the final straw. He’s also unhappy with what he sees as the huge number of U-turns performed by Starmer since he became leader.

We discussed a promotional video he’d used in his leadership campaign in which he was portrayed as a mineworkers’ hero and a defender of human rights. Steve wasn’t impressed by Starmer’s demonstrable lurch to the right since.

‘Depressing’

He also said: “It’s very depressing how Shadow Ministers are using phrases like ‘The country has maxed out its credit card’ and ‘There’s no magic money tree’ – repeating phrases that they probably don’t believe in, but feel they have to say to appeal to people as if we’re all thickos who don’t understand anything about economics.

“Actually, there’s a good way to talk about economics – by being honest. They could start by pointing out that a huge amount of money was printed at the time of the Covid crisis in order to keep the economy afloat. Also during the banking crisis. And how our economic problems won’t be cured by more austerity. But it’s almost as if they want to hold back from saying that, to give them an alibi for continuing self-defeating Tory policies, if that’s what’s convenient for them.”

Like me, Steve is worried that Labour will return to power with a big majority, but then squander the goodwill it has drawn on to get elected.

When disillusionment sets in, the populist right will be in a good position to exploit it because Labour won’t have articulated a coherent progressive vision. The party’s obsession with winning at all costs seems to have stopped it considering how voters’ legitimate aspirations can be met.

Another big issue is the way in which members of the Shadow Cabinet have been making complimentary noises about Thatcher. Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves devoted most of a recent speech to praising the former Prime Minister’s legacy and Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy described her as a visionary.

I wondered what Shadow Welsh Secretary Jo Stevens would make of this, especially as she recently spoke with passion about how her area of north Wales had been very badly affected by the closure of Shotton steelworks in the Thatcher era.

Employment lawyer

I first met Jo many years ago as a union rep when she was an employment lawyer with Thompsons, used by many trade unions. Her belief in workers’ rights was palpable and admirable. In 2015 Jo was the Labour candidate in Cardiff Central, hoping to win the seat back from the Liberal Democrats.

At the same general election Mari Williams was the Labour candidate in Cardiff North, which she hoped to win back from the Tories.As things turned out Jo was successful, but Mari wasn’t.

I interviewed the two of them together and, while they were both very personable, they were clearly from different wings of the party. Mari’s answers were very centrist, which I’m sure reflected her political position. She was trying to persuade Tory voters to support her instead, and didn’t want to frighten the horses.

Jo, on the other hand, was clearly on the left of the party. Every answer she gave was more radical than the response to the same question given by Mari. Cardiff Central had more students and more ethnic minority residents. The horses in Cardiff Central were unlikely to be frightened by someone expressing support for nuclear disarmament or the renationalisation of the rail industry. But it was clear that she spoke with sincerity.

Clear vision

Responding to my question about the praise given to Thatcher by her Shadow Cabinet colleagues, Jo Stevens said: “There’s no doubt that Thatcher had a clear vision about how she wanted to change the country and she delivered it in a ruthless way whether you agreed with it or not. I didn’t at the time and I still don’t.

“I saw first-hand the damage she caused to communities across Wales including Shotton, which was scarred by the closure of its steelworks. For me, the impact that had on my community growing up is her legacy.”

I found this a good and honest response. In the context of today’s UK Labour Party, where politicians are expected to bite their tongues or preferably discard the principles they may have held for decades with the short-term aim of winning the coming general election, it took courage to say what she believes.

But how many others like her are there? We know there has been a concerted effort on the part of those running the UK party to get rid of as many left wing MPs as possible.

This is driven by the belief that left-wingers inhibit Labour’s chance of victory. I don’t believe that – they have an important contribution to make in a party that – to use the old cliche – has always been a broad church.

By alienating the likes of Steve Davies, and by failing to inspire a new generation of idealistic activists, the Labour Party may win by a landslide in this year’s general election, but lose its soul and continue as a hollowed-out version of its former self.

That clearly has major implications for the future of Wales and Welsh politics.


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Dave Langston
Dave Langston
10 days ago

Starmer lost another 25,000 members as reported at the latest NEC meeting. That’s now over 300,000 members left the part since he became leader.

Frank
Frank
10 days ago

If you dare cast your minds back to when we last had a Labour government, then think of the shambles that we have got now. Oh my God, where’s the nearest cliff!!!!

karl
karl
10 days ago
Reply to  Frank

Ok boomer. The global bank crash was a Tory policy of Thatcher. My wages and my ability to buy a home was fine under Labour. Now my pocket is robbed and my town dead and my kids treated like gunfodder for a future war. You really are nasty.

Annibendod
Annibendod
10 days ago
Reply to  karl

The bank crash certainly does have its root in the libertarian economics Thatcher espoused but it happened at a time when Labour were in powerand had been for 11 years. It is widely acknowledged that Blair & Brown’s unwillingness to regulate the banks sufficiently had a part to play in the crash as it unfolded in Britain. Ironically, this is the Labour Govt to whom Frank refers, apparently in a more favourable light. So the moral of the tale is that both parties actually follow the same economic fundementals and for all Labour’s topological economic ointment for workers, it does… Read more »

Richard Davies
Richard Davies
8 days ago
Reply to  Annibendod

It was the sub-prime mortgage business in the usa that caused the banks to crash in 2008. “It is widely acknowledged that Blair & Brown’s unwillingness to regulate the banks sufficiently had a part to play in the crash as it unfolded in Britain.” There is no truth in that claim! Yes the banks in uk weren’t regulated sufficiently but the tories wanted to go further with de-regulation. It is also widely recognised by economists that Brown’s actions saved the banking industry from total collapse!

Frank
Frank
10 days ago
Reply to  karl

Not nasty at all just expressing the truth. Any of the major parties couldn’t organise an orgy in a brothel but they are tip-top at organising their own welfare.

Robert Williams
Robert Williams
10 days ago

Excellent from Martin. The general thesis is pretty incontestable, and it’s good to have detail and verbatim from individuals rather than generalities.

Art Byrant
Art Byrant
10 days ago

I wanted to be a psephologist but i didn’t have the maths

karl
karl
10 days ago

Labour may be labelled better than Tories, but right now they hate remain voters, those who want a ceasefire in Gaza and green policy. Labour feel gutless and just a less nasty tory type of party.

Annibendod
Annibendod
10 days ago
Reply to  karl

They are the “We’re not the Tory Party but we can be the Tory Party if you like but a bit better but sorry, haven’t got any more details on that except we’ll tax and spend exactly like the Tory Party” party.

Maesglas
Maesglas
10 days ago

Starmer doesn’t deserve to win and will only do so because the Tories are so loathed. I can’t think of one good reason to vote Labour but can think of many reasons not to such as the U turns on all Starmer’s reneged promises and cancelling their Green investment plans.. But it’s also the false faked image they now present. For example, the chorus of Shadow Cabinet ministers singing the praises of Thatcher’s achievements – particularly Starmer’s lauding her conviction politics. Clearly Starmer’s learned nothing from his heroine because i can’t think of a single thing that he really believes.… Read more »

Annibendod
Annibendod
10 days ago

Whilst it may certainly be the case that Labour’s activist base is diminishing, I’d argue that it is because they’ve moved to the centre (right) in order to win votes. However, political participation appears to be a declining interest except for those where the far-right parties are making some ground. Corbyn demonstrated that socialist policies could be popular and I still maintain had Labour not collapsed into all out civil war, they could have won in 2017. The pity is that the Left remains wedded to Labour as an electoral vehicle. Meanwhile, the centrists who make up the bulk of… Read more »

Linda Jones
Linda Jones
10 days ago
Reply to  Annibendod

Very well said

Richard Davies
Richard Davies
8 days ago
Reply to  Annibendod

Labour came within about 2000 votes of winning the 2017 general election (and if it had been a week later than it was many believed they would have). The “civil war” was covert activity, within labour, by those opposed to Corbyn and overt activity, from many different directions, outside labour that convinced the electorate to choose the habitual liar over the decent human being in 2019!

Linda Jones
Linda Jones
10 days ago

I suspect the turnout at the next election will be low because so many have no party to vote for. Working people have no representation in Westminster.

adopted cardi
adopted cardi
7 days ago
Reply to  Linda Jones

Well, speaking for myself – i am a leftist, always have been, and always will be. For the last nearly 40 years i have voted Plaid. I never fell for Blair – to me he was a war driven ripping yarns type public schoolboy tory. I voted Plaid, ever hopeful, but in the Corbyn election I voted for him, obviously – the best leader we have never had! At the moment i will only vote for Plaid if they denounce Israel in the strongest possible way- and i think a lot of others would too. But so far they are… Read more »

Steve Woods
Steve Woods
9 days ago

I didn’t leave the Labour Party.

If left me when it began its relentless move to the right.

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